02/08/2011 05:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Finding Community in a Sea of Snow

Like many Chicagoans, I spent the morning after the big snow shoveling. Sidewalk, front stoop, back walkway, back steps, gangway, entryway to the garage -- then repeated it all for good measure. By the time I finally finished, I was hoping not to pick up a shovel again for at least a week.

That's when I heard a banging at the back door. Loud and insistent.

"Who is it?" my wife, Lisa, asked through the closed door. We live in a two-flat in McKinley Park. Nobody ever comes to our back door.

"Your neighbor," a woman called out. Lisa and I looked at each other. What neighbor? The voice wasn't familiar.

When we opened the door, a small woman with an oversized jacket and gloves glared at us. She was holding a shovel. Now I recognized her. She lives behind us, across the alley. I'd seen her on occasion pulling into her garage or taking out her trash.

"Why you put snow in front of my garage?" she demanded. "I live alone. And next-door neighbor old man. Live alone, too. We try shovel, but it too much. Why you do that?"

"I didn't put any snow in front of your garage," I said, irritation in my voice. "I've been shoveling all day, but I didn't block your garage."

We went back and forth for a minute -- her accusing, me denying. Then the woman's tone changed. She said she couldn't do the shoveling by herself. Tapping her hand to her chest, she told us she had a weak heart. She mentioned her elderly neighbor again.

"You come help," she said. She seemed to be telling, not asking. So we went.

Though we've lived in this house for five years, it's amazing how limited our interactions with other residents can be. It's a working class community for the most part, so lots of people have multiple jobs or work late shifts. We all get busy with our own lives. And once the Chicago winter rolls in and we're cooped up inside, you can go weeks, even months, without seeing the people who live next door.

It's one of the odd paradoxes of city living, at least in our neighborhood. Houses and two-flats on our street are packed as tightly as books on a crowded shelf - I can literally reach out a window and touch the house to the south of ours. But the distance between us can feel like an ocean. Or a sea of snow.

Race and class differences probably play a role as well. I'm white, and Lisa's Mexican American. While our neighborhood is made up primarily of Mexican immigrants, we also have a number of Chinese families, whites, and a few African Americans on our block alone. Economic and education levels also vary greatly, with renters and homeowners like us living side by side. Outsiders might say it's "diverse," and it is in many ways. That's one of the reasons we love living here. But negotiating that diversity can be an uncertain journey.

Back in the alley for the third time that day, I quickly realized that somebody had come through with a snow mover. They'd pushed all the high drifts to one side of the alley in order to clear a path on the other. The entry to our garage was unobstructed. But across the way, a wall of snow about five feet high and five feet deep blocked both the woman's and the old man's garages. They'd both begun trying to dig their way out.

"Why'd you pile all your snow in front of our garages?" the old man snapped as soon as I arrived. I'd only interacted with him a couple times before, and he'd struck me as a cantankerous guy. I'd never seen him smile.

Then again, maybe he'd never seen me smile, either. As much as I hate to admit it, there's a part of me that's acquired a certain wariness that can surface when going about my daily routine. Sometimes I put up walls of my own with people I don't know.

"I didn't put the snow there!" I yelled across the alley. "We haven't even taken our car out of the garage yet. How could I have shoveled all that? It looks like somebody came through with a plow or something." OK, so I was being a little defensive. But I was determined to clear my name.

"You know, you leave your garage door open all the time," the old man said.

"We don't leave it open. I think it's broken. We close it, but then we come back out and it's open again."

He stuck his shovel into the wall of snow. "Well, they'll steal everything you got if you leave it open like that."

Yeah, I thought. Thanks for the tip.

For the next hour, we shoveled. For the first ten minutes, if we talked, it was only about strategy: Maybe we should pile the snow over there instead. Would it be better to start from the garage and work our way out? How wide of an opening do we need for the car to get past?

Gradually, though, the mood shifted. The woman's face softened as she and Lisa began to talk. I let my guard down. The old man joked that it'd probably be several months before the city came to plow our streets. We learned each other's names, how long we'd been in the neighborhood, where we were from.

The woman, Judy, came to Chicago from Beijing sixteen years ago. Since she lives alone, she worries about the gunshots she's heard on her block, and the graffiti that's occasionally scrawled on garage doors.

The older man, Ed, told us he'd lived in the same house his whole life - 78 years. He'd seen a lot of people come and go from the neighborhood, he said. Dug his way out of previous blizzards in '67, '79 and '99. Worked all his life as a maintenance man.

It's not like we became best buddies. I doubt we'll be joining one another for dinner anytime soon - though I guess you never know. But by the time we'd cleared the entryways to both garages, it felt like we'd shoveled away more than just walls of snow.

"Thanks, good people," Ed said to the rest of us as we were heading inside. "Oh, and you might want to check the sensor on your garage door," he told me. "It's probably dirty. Might be why it keeps opening."

Before the snowstorm, we'd been strangers for the most part, shooting cautious glances at one another across the alley. Now, thanks to Judy banging on our door, we're neighbors.

In the grand scheme of things, that may not seem like such a big deal. But at the end of an exhausting day, in the bitter cold of a buried city, it felt good.